Nearly 5,000 Pilots Are Under Investigation For Hiding Medical Issues

The Federal Aviation Administration takes its job of ensuring safety in the skies seriously—even if it means taking thousands of pilots out of the cockpit to do so.

New reporting from The Washington Post outlines an ongoing FAA investigation, which started in 2019 after the VA inspector general's office became concerned that some pilots might be hiding mental health conditions or fraudulently receiving disability benefits in connection to those issues. As pilots often self-report these things, they stand accused of falsifying their records.

“Given the serious safety issues involved with flying commercial airplanes, and to promote the proper use of significant taxpayer dollars, we have been proactively reviewing certain VA disability benefits paid to commercial pilots based on conditions that may be disqualifying if true,” Inspector General Michael Missal said of the inquiry, per the Post. 

About 600 of the approximately 4,800 pilots who were under investigation are licensed to fly for passenger airlines, while the rest held commercial licenses that permit them to fly for various businesses including cargo, private planes, and tour companies.

FAA spokesman Matthew Lehner acknowledged in a statement that the agency has been looking into thousands of pilots "who might have submitted incorrect or false information as part of their medical applications," but the organization has since closed about half of those cases. So far, about 60 pilots who "posed a clear danger to aviation safety" have been barred from flying and ordered to stay out of the cockpit while their medical records are under review.

The FAA's probe has been heating up in recent months, with the issue even being elevated to congressional oversight committees. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, meanwhile, asked the agency for amnesty for those pilots whose records were under review, telling the Post that pilots frequently make mistakes on their difficult-to-understand medical certification forms. "This is a complex issue, and it would be easy to just point fingers at the thousands of pilots caught up in the issue,” the association said.

For now, many of those pilots have been allowed to return to the cockpit while their records are under review. “The FAA used a risk-based approach to identify veterans whose medical conditions posed the greatest risk to safety and instructed them to cease flying while the agency reviews their cases,” Lehner said in a statement. “The vast majority of these pilots may continue to operate safely while we complete the reconciliation process."

There hasn't been a fatal passenger airline crash in the U.S. in over a decade, the longest streak on record. As such, chances are it's safe to fly regardless of the ongoing probe.